Sit-In vs. Sit-on-Top Kayaks – Differences & Which To Choose

Kayaks come in two basic types namely sit-inside (sometimes called sit-in) and sit-on-top kayaks and the first thing you have to decide when buying a new kayak is the type to go for. There are similarities between sit-in and sit-on-top kayaks. After all, they are both kayaks and you’ll see both types having seats and some form of foot support.

However, there is a significant difference in the design of sit-inside and sit-on-top kayaks leading to each type having certain advantages and disadvantages over the other. Sit-inside yaks aren’t necessarily better than sit-on-top yaks and vice versa. It’s your personal preference, the intended purpose of the yak, and the water conditions where you’ll be kayaking that will determine the type you go for.

The main difference between sit-on-top and sit-inside kayaks is that sit-inside kayaks are enclosed. The enclosed area is the cockpit and you get to actually ‘sit inside’ the kayak.

In this article, you’ll learn all you need to know about sit-inside and sit-on-top kayaks, their pros, cons, and situations where each type of kayak performs best. At the end of this article, you should have a good understanding of each type of kayak and be able to choose the type that best suits your needs.

Sit-on-Top Kayaks

Sit-on-top kayaks are not enclosed and therefore do not have a cockpit like their sit-inside counterparts. Instead, the seat is placed on top of the vessel and you will actually be sitting on top of the kayak since there is no confinement on the kayak. Everything on sit-on-top kayaks from seatbacks to footwells is rigged onto the actual deck of the vessel.

This type of kayak is very user-friendly and it is for this reason that it is popular among beginning paddlers and even kayak fishermen as there is no feeling of being confined. The lack of a cockpit also makes it easy to enter and exit sit-on-top kayaks. You’ll be able to easily get back in a sit-on-top kayak should the vessel capsize.

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Advantages & Disadvantages of a Sit-on-Top Kayak

Pros

  • The absence of a cockpit makes it easy to enter and exit sit-on-top kayaks. Also, there is no feeling of being confined and you can easily exit the kayak on the water to go swimming. And getting back on the kayak is also very easy.
  • Sit-on-top kayaks are literally unsinkable. The reason for this is the completely enclosed hull design. You’ll also find self-bailing scupper holes on this kayak that helps to drain water out of the vessel.
  • The absence of a cockpit also makes it difficult to stay dry in a sit-on-top kayak as you get increasingly wet with each wave, riffle, or splash. This is actually beneficial in warm weather and tropical climates as the water splashes have a pleasant cooling effect.
  • Ideal for beginners and veterans that enjoy a laid back, no fuss touring.

Cons

  • Since the open cockpit exposes you to the elements, sit-on-top kayaks are not suitable for use in cold weather. You certainly don’t want water splashing on you in such situations and you are protected less from the wind.
  • Due to their higher center of gravity, sit-on-top kayaks are slower than their sit-inside counterparts. If speed is your poison, you aren’t going to get this from sit-on-top kayaks.
  • Not ideal for use in rapid currents. You should only use sit-on-top kayaks on slow-moving rivers, lakes, and protected coastal waters.

Sit-Inside Kayaks

Sit-inside kayaks are the more traditionally looking kayak and as their name implies, they have an enclosed cockpit. This means the paddler will be positioned below the water’s surface instead of being top of the kayak and above the water level as in sit-on-top kayaks.

This design also allows kayakers to brace their knees against the inside walls of the hull. And the result of this is stronger and more efficient paddle strokes. Intermediate and expert paddlers favor sit-inside kayaks as the significantly lower center of gravity provides more stability and speed.

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Advantages & Disadvantages of a Sit-Inside Kayak

Pros

  • The significantly lower center of gravity of sit-inside kayaks is clearly their biggest advantage. Not only does this make the kayak very stable but the paddler is able to lean on the edges of the vessel for more efficient turning in rough waters.
  • The enclosed cockpit offers protection against the elements making sit-inside kayaks ideal for use in cold weather or on chilly waters.
  • They can be used in different water conditions – calm waters and rapid currents – due to their superb stability.
  • Since paddlers can brace their knees against the walls of the hull, they have more control over the kayak and their maneuverability is greatly increased.
  • The significantly lower center of gravity means sit-inside kayaks can be designed to be a lot narrower and consequently a lot faster than sit-on-top kayaks. This speed combined with their efficient paddling means sit-inside yaks can be for long-distance paddling.

Cons

  • The open cockpit design makes paddlers feel like they are confined especially in the case of a capsize. Also, reentering a sit-inside kayak should it capsize is more difficult than reentering a sit-on-top kayak.
  • The general narrower design of sit-inside kayaks means that they have a much lower degree of initial stability, which is the tendency for the yak to remain upright when the paddler is sitting in the kayak with the keel directly underneath them.
  • Should the hatch covers be removed in heavy seas, sit-inside kayaks can sink as a result.of the bow and stern getting filled with water.

Recreational vs. Touring Kayaks

Sit-inside kayaks can also be classified as recreational or touring kayaks. Recreational yaks are designed for beginners and other people that paddle on calm waters – lakes, slow moving torrents, and so on. Also, recreational kayaks typically are wider than touring kayaks and are very stable, a feature that will come in handy when fishing or taking photographs.

However, this extra stability comes at the cost of the kayak being unable to take on strong currents and heavy winds. Also, recreational kayaks aren’t as fast as their touring counterparts. The shorter length of recreational kayaks reduces their ability to track (be paddled in a straight line).

Touring kayaks on the other hand are long, faster, and come packed with features that entice kayakers that want to paddle faster and farther. The more aggressive hull design of touring kayaks makes them a lot faster than recreational kayaks although this extra speed comes at the expense of stability. And this is why inexperienced paddlers may not be able to handle touring kayaks well.

The longer length of touring kayaks means there is more storage space. This makes them ideal for longer kayaking trips (weekend trips, multi-day trips) since you are able to pack more gear. And touring kayaks are more versatile since they can handle rapid currents

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Sit-on-Top vs. Sit-Inside Kayaks – Other Considerations

Kayaks come in different types as there are several specialized yaks designed to take on a particular situation.

Hard Shell vs. Inflatable Design

Depending on the type of material used to manufacture kayaks, they can be classified as either hard shell or inflatable kayaks. Hard shell kayaks, sometimes referred to as rigid kayaks, are made of wood, fiberglass, and other modern materials like composite. They can stand up to the elements and require less maintenance. However, hard shell kayaks are very heavy and bulky, weighing as much as 55 pounds. This poses a problem when it comes to storage and transportation.

Unless you own a car, transporting your hard shell kayak to water bodies is going to be a hassle. Storage will also be a lot more difficult if you don’t have a garage, barn, or shed.

Inflatable kayaks on the other hand are designed to solve the problems of storage and transportation associated with hard shell kayaks. They are about the size of a backpack when deflated and weigh about 25 pounds making them easy to transport and store. You can take an inflatable kayak on a bus, train, and even a plane. Storage is easy since you can just toss it under your bed, inside your closet, or against a wall.

The inflation process of inflatable kayaks is easy and straightforward and you are just minutes away from the water. Combine this with the fact that inflatable kayaks are generally cheaper than hard shell kayaks and it would seem that inflatable kayaks are sent from the gods themselves.

There have always been concerns about the durability of inflatable kayaks but this will be no issue since they’ve proven to be very durable.

However, inflatable kayaks aren’t all rainbows and sunshine. They require more maintenance than hard shell kayaks and are more easily affected by the elements.

So after deciding between a sit-inside and sit-on-top kayak, the next thing is to choose between a rigid and inflatable kayak. And you should be able to do this with the explanations above.

Stability and Speed

Sit-on-top kayaks are generally more stable than sit-inside kayaks and this is why they are ideal for a laid back, no fussing touring on calm waters. Of course, you get this extra stability at the expense of speed, so don’t expect to go all fast and furious with a sit-on-top yak.

Sit-inside yaks aren’t as stable as sit-on-top kayaks but are faster and easier to maneuver.

Storage

Sit-on-top kayaks generally have more storage space than sit-inside kayaks. However, there’s less dry storage space on sit-on-top kayaks than sit-inside kayaks due to the open deck design. Sit-inside kayaks offer more dry storage space options although overall, they have less storage space option than a sit-on-top kayak.

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Which Is Better?

As I said in the introduction, sit-inside yaks aren’t necessarily better than sit-on-top yaks and vice versa. But depending on use, each type has certain advantages and disadvantages and it is on this basis I’ll rate which one is better for a particular use.

For Beginner Paddlers

Sit-on-top kayaks take the crown here. They are very user-friendly, very stable, and the lack of cockpit means paddlers don’t feel confined on the vessel. Also, it’s easy to enter and exit this type of kayak and paddlers can go for a swim and easily re-enter the yak. In the case of a capsize, it’s also easy to re-enter the yak.

For Fishing

Another area where sit-on-top kayaks shine. The open design means kayak anglers have a lot of space to move around. Overall, there is an excellent range of motion during casting, trolling, and reeling. There are even models of sit-on-top kayaks that are specifically designed for fishing and come with built-in rod holders.

For Tandem Kayak

Both Sit-on-top and sit-in kayaks come in tandem variants. However, there are limited options for tandem sit-in kayaks compared to tandem sit-on-top kayaks.

Long Distance Kayaking

Sit-inside kayaks reign supreme here as you can cruise long distances thanks to their speed.

Whitewater Kayaking

If you’ll be kayaking on river rapids, then the only logical choice of kayak for you is a sit-inside kayak as it’s able to handle rough waters very well thanks to its maneuverability.

Final Thoughts

Sit-on-top vs sit-in kayaks – The question is inevitably in the mind of anyone looking to get their first kayak. Both have their pros and cons, and are more suitable for different situations and water types. I hope that with this article, you can see clearer which type is more suitable for you!

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